Yale University President Richard Levin has announced that the school is discontinuing “Sex Week” in its present form. Since 2002, the program has brought speakers to campus to discuss a variety of sex-related topics. But as it grew, it involved corporate sponsors such as Pure Romance (in-home sex toy sales parties) and porn stars such as Sasha Grey.
President Levin has done the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.
He could have assembled the student Sex Week producers and said “we need to do this differently.” They could have proposed substantive changes (or not), and let things unfold from there. But no, he dropped the atomic bomb.
Sex Week will, in fact, return in a different form next year, although neither sponsored by nor located on Yale facilities. But regardless of the outcome, the reasoning behind the fuss is highly troubling. It indicates a continuing trend of American sex-negativity dressed up as concerns about public health.
A group called Undergraduates for a Better Yale College complained that Sex Week was too focused on porn. That may or may not be true. But they go on to demand, “Tell Yale that a pornographic culture does not create respect, but degrades…[the campus should focus on] relationships based on true love between partners, not transient lust.”
As is often the case, people who want sex intertwined with “love” believe that that’s the only correct form of sexual expression—for everyone, not just for themselves. These students apparently want Sex Week to be Intimate Forms of Affection Week. That kind of narrow-minded thinking and discomfort with lust is why students need Sex Week in the first place.
Another troubling aspect of the situation is the way President Levin received the recommendation to shut down Sex Week. It came from the report of a committee investigating whether the campus environment is hostile toward women, which is illegal under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act.
The committee’s report suggested—with absolutely no data or even theory—that because Sex Week had become too focused on titillation and porn stars, it was part of a bigger problem of sexual assault and harassment, and thus should be banned. This is the familiar libel of those angry about how sex is misused to hurt others: sexual entertainment and the frank admission of lust in the human psyche somehow lead to sexual violence against women.
These people ignore two FACTS:
* Cultures around the globe that experience an increase in legal porn enjoy a decrease in sexual violence;
* Since free porn flooded American homes via the internet in 2000, sexual violence has decreased.
That said, I can easily agree that Sex Week has evolved in some unfortunate directions. As a lifelong sex educator, I have watched as porn stars have been hired to lecture college students across America. I have seen representatives of Ashley Madison and other dating sites presented as experts on conference panels. I cringed as Ron Jeremy went on a national tour debating the XXXChurch on the effects of porn. I even lived through Kim Cattrall publishing a book of sex advice called—gulp—Sexual Intelligence. Her credentials? Playing a sex-loving woman on the show Sex And The City.
I admit it—I’d rather be giving those lectures myself (shameless promo: see the link to my 2012 lecture schedule at the right of this page). Or that they be given by my esteemed colleagues, such as Debbie Herbenick, Jay Friedman, Judith Steinhart, Paul Joannides—there are dozens of qualified (and entertaining) sex educators out there.
But the problem with campus Sex Weeks goes beyond having porn stars as “experts” (although at least we can depend on these people to use grownup words like clitoris and ejaculate). It’s a matter of addressing what students actually need.
The three biggest sexual problems facing students are:
* Unintended pregnancy;
* The inability to communicate before, during, and after sex;
* The fluidity of the concept of “consent.”
(Note: Life is NOT as simple as “no means no.” While coercion IS black-and-white—it’s always wrong, regardless of circumstances—pressure, self-doubt, ambivalence, misunderstanding, fantasy, hope, low self-esteem, and the trading of sex for prestige or other nebulous goods is far more common in college student sexuality, complicating sexual interactions even before we get into issues like alcohol and privacy.)
These three issues are inextricably linked. They all relate to questions of accepting one’s own sexuality; feeling a sense of agency in shaping sexual experiences; having a wide range of sexual options, not simply intercourse or even genital sex; and making sexual decisions based on one’s core values (which requires knowing them, of course).
This is the stuff that Sex Weeks should focus on—not positions or techniques, not why porn use devalues or addicts us, not why sex-with-love is the best sex. The three Cs of enjoyable sex—communicate, communicate, communicate. A frank discussion of why men enjoy porn (and keep it secret), and why women feel queasy about it would be great too—not a discussion of how porn affects “people” or “society” or even “users,” but a venue for students to discuss their feelings and their fantasies about each other around porn.
While the Yale community debates “appropriate” ways to learn about sex and love, I note with grim irony their widespread acceptance of two of the world’s most violent, body-objectifying institutions—NCAA football and ROTC.
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